Emphasis on Iraq Remains, But From a Different Angle


By David E Sanger

New York Times
January 21, 2004

President Bush used his State of the Union Message on Tuesday night to answer directly the critics of his decision to invade Iraq, but he emphasized that country's "liberation," rather than the threat he has said its illicit weapons posed to the United States and the world. Mr. Bush's approach was a notable departure from the address he gave from the same place in 2003, when the last third of his speech listed, one by one, suspected stores of biological and chemical weapons that he asserted were still in the possession of Saddam Hussein.

This year, after months of largely fruitless inspections, he devoted only two sentences to the subject and worded it carefully, saying that inspectors had identified "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations." Mr. Bush made no reference to the continuing search for the weapons, in which an American-led team of inspectors working for nearly eight months has found no unconventional weapons or evidence of active programs to manufacture them.

Instead, Mr. Bush took on the arguments heard from many of the Democratic candidates for president: that Mr. Bush acted prematurely, citing faulty evidence, and that with more time and care he could have built a true international coalition. Mr. Bush has addressed each of those arguments before, but on Tuesday night he put them all together, with a more assertive response than any he has offered before.

"Had we failed to act," Mr. Bush said, "the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day. Had we failed to act, Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance by dictators around the world. Iraq's torture chambers would still be filled with victims — terrified and innocent."

"The killing fields of Iraq — where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children vanished into the sands — would still be known only to the killers," he added. Mr. Bush also addressed the critique that "our duties in Iraq must be internationalized," and without naming his critics, again led by the Democrats competing for the chance to face him in November, he suggested they were ill informed. He listed the nations that have committed troops to Iraq, including Japan and South Korea, which just joined the effort, and also took a shot at France and Germany for their opposition.

"From the beginning, America has sought international support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and we have gained much support," Mr. Bush said. "There is a difference, however, between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few. America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country." But Mr. Bush never returned to the charges about Iraq that he leveled last Jan. 28, less than two months before he ordered the troops who had massed in Kuwait to topple the regime of Mr. Hussein.

In that speech, he listed each intelligence finding that the C.I.A. had provided him with just months before: that Mr. Hussein had amassed anthrax and botulin, nerve agents and mobile biological weapons laboratories. As he named each one, he gave a variant of this conclusion: "He hasn't accounted for that material. He's given no evidence that he destroyed it." He concluded that "it is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons."

Gradually, some of Mr. Bush's aides are beginning to acknowledge that some of those stores were probably destroyed years ago, though they express bewilderment that Mr. Hussein provided no evidence of that to international inspectors before the invasion that ended his rule.

In his address, Mr. Bush contrasted Mr. Hussein's decision, and his fate, to that of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, who agreed last month to dismantle his country's nascent nuclear weapons program. "Nine months of intense negotiations involving the United States and Great Britain succeeded with Libya," he said, "while 12 years of diplomacy with Iraq did not." He connected the two, saying, "for diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America."

As expected, Mr. Bush did not repeat his famous phrase "axis of evil" to describe North Korea and Iran. Mr. Bush has often expressed frustration in the past few months that with Mr. Hussein defeated, Americans no longer regard the country at war, though he clearly does. He repeated that frustration at midday on Tuesday, meeting with television anchors on a "background" basis, meaning that none of his statements were to be attributed directly to the president.

He made the point at the opening of his address, when he warned Americans against going "back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat to us."

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